Orthodox Jewish, British, Pro-Israel, Pro-peace

Last week I met and spoke to a small group of Orthodox Jews in London, about Israeli political and social developments. I expected a challenging crowd, although the meeting’s organizer Hannah Weisfeld – who is working tirelessly to start an organization inspired by J Street in the UK – assured me that the audience was broadly pro-peace and progressive. But the reality was much more serious.

These committed, active, synagogue-attending Orthodox folks, representing a range of ages and professions, were positively impassioned with the need to support Israel by supporting peace and democracy. They hung onto my talk but jumped in to demand what they could do. They probed eagerly to find out what the religious community in Israel is doing to protest the conflict, violations of human rights and violations of democratic principles in Israel. I felt almost apologetic; Rabbis for Human Rights is out there, I said, but religiosity in Israel (as in many places) is largely linked with hard-line attitudes, and the religious leadership hardly has a presence in the peace, democracy, or liberal values camp. I reminded them that specific religious figures had protested the “Rabbi’s Letter” calling on Jews not to rent apartments to non-Jews.  But the listeners seemed let down by what they considered an insufficient response.

The discussion quickly ignited. How can it be, they argued, that religious Israelis are not protesting against injustice from deep within the sources and writings of Jewish tradition? What can we do?

The lengthy discussion that followed left me with two main observations: First, these people are clearly not the only ones who hold such attitudes, but they are afraid to speak out publicly. Second, they want desperately to help the country they care about so much, and feel is being destroyed. Yet they worry that as non-Israelis, they lack legitimacy.

The latter issue can be sensitive. But diaspora Jews have a stake in Israel; and Jews of all other political shades air their opinions constantly anyway. I urged them to join those voices. Almost immediately, one of the participants sent me this piece in light of last week’s terrible violence. I am proud to host his guest post here.

Relations with the Enemy

By Yohanan Baruch, London.*

Jewish thought as expressed in the Talmud often takes care not to demonize enemies.  It regrets the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea; it attributes the Roman army’s destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 to Jews’ internal division, hatred and dissent, not to external evil; many discussions between rabbis and Roman generals on religious and philosophical issues treat the enemy with respect.

Purim, the carnival-like festival that Jews celebrated last weekend, might be an exception.  Haman, the villain of the festival, is a character of unmitigated evil and the rabbis connect him with Amalek, a destructive nation whom Jews are commanded, in turn, to eliminate.

The mythical relationship between Israel and Amalek is basically a tribal feud:  Amalek attacked Israel in the desert when the nation left Egypt; Israel’s first king, Saul, defeated Amalek in battle but failed to exterminate them entirely; Amalek’s descendant Haman tried, in turn to exterminate Israel at the time of the Persian Empire. Purim is the celebration of Haman’s failure to carry out his destructive plan. On the Shabbat before Purim, we re-read in synagogue the Torah’s command to “blot out the memory of Amalek”.

Of course, the commandment no longer exists in practical terms because, in the words of the Talmud, ‘all the nations were mixed up by Sennacherib the king of Assyria’ when he invaded Israel 2,700 years ago.  Today it would be impossible to identify any individual as a descendant of Amalek and modern rabbis use poetic license in interpreting the command to ‘blot out their memory’.

But poetry has its dangers. This year, I’m sure there were many synagogues in which the mythical murderers of Amalek and the real ones of Itamar were mentioned together. It’s a comparison that could encourage another cycle of distrust, hatred and retribution.

In this context we might re-visit the words of Rabbi Suliman ibn Uchna, one of the kabbalists of Tzefat of the sixteenth century, whose commentary on the Sifrei, an ancient exposition of the book of Deuteronomy, is frequently quoted by modern editors.

Rabbi Uchna traces our feud back to Amalek’s grandfather, Esau, the brother of Jacob.  He suggests that if our own grandfather, Jacob, hadn’t taken advantage of Esau when Esau came in, tired and weary from his hunt, and purchased Esau’s birthright for a pot of soup, then Esau’s grand-son Amalek would not have attacked us when we struggled through the desert, tired and weary, after leaving Egypt.

In this reading he’s close to a Talmudic tradition in Sanhedrin (page 99b) that Amalek’s mother, Timna, was someone who wanted to become part of the Jewish people but was rejected by us.  Instead, she married into the family of Esau.  Her son then grew up to be our enemy.  These ideas are echoed by Rabbi S R Hirsch who notes that Esau might have developed differently if his education at the hands of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob’s parents, had been different.

Neither Rabbi Uchna nor the Talmudic tradition in Sanhedrin is suggesting that it was right for Amalek to attack Israel.  It was wrong.  But they’re reminding us that our actions as individuals can have serious, unavoidable consequences for the nation as a whole.  And that the approach we take to relationships with our enemies can either bring peace closer or push it further away.

This is just as important a message today as it was in the time of Rabbi Suliman.

*This post was contributed by a Talmud student who is a member of an Orthodox Jewish community in London, and writes under the name Yohanan Baruch.  His father served in the Israeli army in 1948 as an engineer and his grandfather was a founding member of the Brit Shalom peace movement that was active towards the end of the Mandate. In his spare time, Yohanan works for a bank. Email:  yohanan.baruch@gmail.com